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UTAS Social Inclusion Community of Practice

Initial objectives
The University of Tasmania’s (UTAS) Social Inclusion Community of Practice (CoP) consists of staff from across UTAS and beyond who collaboratively learn, share, and reflect on social inclusion in higher education in order to inform and improve teaching and support practice. Our initial objectives have been to:

  • create a collaborative space for staff (teaching and support; academic and professional) to:
    • deepen our understanding and knowledge of social inclusion (what it means in theory and practice)
    • share experiences, expertise, and best practice in regard to inclusive teaching and support
    • reflect on what social inclusion means at the micro and macro levels (e.g. as an individual teacher in a classroom, and as a member of a wider campus)
    • broadly promote and support socially-inclusive practices, and
    • increase conversations between faculty academic staff and staff in support roles and pre-degree programs, and with colleagues outside of the university, such as at TasTAFE.

How was it formed?
Our initial core group formed organically in 2012, as a grass-roots collective that organised the first UTAS Social Inclusion Symposium. From there, with the support of a small internal grant, the Social Inclusion CoP formed in 2014, and now consists of 70+ academic and professional staff from seven UTAS campuses, most faculties, and a range of levels, as well as colleagues from TasTAFE and Mission Australia. The small grant funded transport and catering for face-to-face meetings during 2014.

What is a CoP?
Etienne Wenger, an authority on CoPs, suggests that CoPs consist of a core group (i.e. an organising group), an inner circle (staff who’re quite committed), and an outer circle (members who might hear about the odd session by word-of-mouth and attend now and then). Unlike committees, there is no pressure on members to attend meetings; it is perfectly fine for them to float in and out of the group. For ongoing running of the CoP, though, we’ve found it’s crucial to have a committed core, organising group.

How does it operate?
Given we’re from multiple campuses, it’s not logistically possible to always meet face-to-face, so we’ve had video conference meetings as well as face-to-face whole-day events. The ideas for presentations and sessions have come from the CoP members, and most of the presenters have come from within the CoP – we’ve found there is a lot of expertise within the group! Community members and students have been involved in sessions, as have two inter-state presenters (including Sue Trinidad from NCSEHE, who presented on ‘Social Inclusion in Higher Education’ via video-conference in 2015).

Due to the limitations of video conferences (re sound delays, volume, and clarity), presentations are recommended for this mode, and the more interactive sessions are best held in face-to-face meetings. Some of the topics we’ve covered via video-conference are:

  • inclusive teaching practice
  • how UTAS supports migrant students
  • online spaces and inclusion, and
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder.

One of our face-to-face day-long meetings had the overarching theme of internationalisation, and another looked at inclusion and assessment, and inclusion in the classroom. An invaluable session was delivered by two members of the Launceston community who are from refugee backgrounds; they are leaders in their community and have practiced inclusion in refugee camps, and continue to do so in Tasmania.

Impact and outcomes so far?
Some general outcomes include:

  • increased awareness and networking around social inclusion
  • cross-pollination of ideas and practice, through the opportunity offered by the CoP to staff who work in a large, diverse organisation
  • learning about and becoming interested in each other’s work and practice, which has led and will continue to lead to future collaborations or partnerships, and
  • the ‘discovery or un-earthing’ of colleagues working in different aspects along this broad spectrum of social inclusion that challenge and broaden our thinking and practice.

An example of a quantifiable impact of the CoP is a successful research collaboration on Autism Spectrum Disorder. In late 2014, an academic in Architecture and a Disability Adviser in Student Services presented separately at a CoP video-conference meeting on supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This meeting planted the seed for a research proposal, which drew on both presentations. They attribute learning about each other’s work, knowledge of a funding source, and their ongoing research collaboration to the CoP. In 2015, they received a NCSEHE grant ($30,000), completed a report, presented at a national conference (AARE) in Fremantle and a research forum in Hobart, and have launched the UTAS Autism network. The pair has grown to a team of researchers, and the team is planning multiple research projects.

Where to from here?
In 2016, we’ll continue with video conference meetings on topics suggested by the CoP members, such as inclusive online teaching, and a focus on students from refugee backgrounds. We aim to increase the student voice and participation. Having no funding limits our ability to host face-to-face meetings (transport is required, given members are located around the state); our solution, though, is to piggy-back on other suitable face-to-face events. For example, we plan to have a session dedicated to the CoP at a related symposium.

If you are interested in starting a CoP at your institution, we are very happy to discuss our experiences.

Nicole Crawford
Pre-degree Programs
University of Tasmania

Posted 11 February 2016 Posted in Culturally and linguistically diverse, Disability, General